Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What went wrong with Mars One and Hyperloop coverage -- never let a resolved issue stand in the way of a nice think piece

 One of the many contributing factors to the disastrous coverage of Mars One was the human interest appeal. Almost no publication could resist the temptation to tell the inspiring story of bold colonists about to take a one-way trip to another planet. Some of the articles briefly mentioned the possibility that the mission might not happen, but none owned up to the virtual certainty that it wouldn't. To do so would have ruined the story, or at least made it into something more complex and downbeat.

We see something similar here. The Hyperloop would be a useful example for any number of wide-eyed essays on visionary CEOs and Silicon Valley culture, but much of that usefulness depends on the proposal being a serious effort and not just a sad cry for attention. The desire to make Musk's white paper into what the writer needs combined with a weak grasp of engineering gives us stories like this New York Magazine piece by Kevin Roose.

It's been a day since Elon Musk revealed his grand plans for a so-called Hyperloop, a flashy high-speed transportation system that feels pulled from a Robert Heinlein novel, and nobody quite knows what to make of it. PandoDaily's Hamish McKenzie says Hyperloop is proof that Musk has supplanted Steve Jobs as the tech world's biggest visionary. Sam Biddle at Valleywag says it's an expression of a "very rich man's wild imagination." Pundits and professors are weighing in on whether the proposed technology — essentially, it's a scheme to shoot aluminum passenger pods through giant vacuum tubes at 800 mph — would actually work.

Lost in the debate about the Hyperloop's feasibility, or lack thereof, is the fact that Musk's plan — which he's admitted may never materialize — is not primarily a technical proposal directed at consumers, but a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment. By proposing a new way to provide mass transportation that is both cheaper and faster than anything approved by state authorities, Musk is taking aim at the government's monopoly on large public works projects. He's saying to policymakers in Washington and Sacramento alike: I can do your job better than you.
Biddle is mildly skeptical; McKenzie goes beyond the credulous into the shamelessly sycophantic. At no point in the piece or in any of the linked articles, do you catch any sense of the real discussion. Even the framing of  "whether the proposed technology ... would actually work" shows a weak grasp of the issue. Given enough time and money, there's no question something along these general lines would work. What pretty much all of the professors (at least those who don't have a vested interest) are objecting to is the proposed timeline and, even more to the point, budget. Particularly regarding money, Musk is proposing numbers that are easily one and possibly two orders of magnitude below reasonable.

Of course, Roose can't come out and say this. Acknowledging it would greatly undercut a narrative built around disruptive entrepreneurs trying "to pressure lawmakers to get out of the way of technological progress." That mean he has to go along with at least the possibility that the Hyperloop is viable.

And that's part of the problem.

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